Between Family and Postcolonial Earth

We have two cards up our sleeve: One is Mizrahi, the other is 'universal.' We pull out one or the other according to convenience

Hakivun Mizrach (East-Word: A Literary-Cultural Revue), No. 14, edited by Mati Shmuelof, Shiri Gurfinkel and Omri Herzog, 112 pages

"Tehudot zehut," ("Echoing Identities"), edited by Mati Shmuelof, Naftali Shem-Tov and Nir Baram, 972 Series, Am Oved, 252 pages

In the new issue of the literary journal Hakivun Mizrach, there is a poem by Eli Eliahu, a gentle and very honest poet:

And how can I help it if for me

The operation succeeded and Baghdad died,

And all that is left is the music

That my father used to listen to on the stations of shame

While waiting in the underground parking lot

To drive me to the people's army

On his way to work.

Eliahu manages to give fine poetic expression to what quite a few columns, essays and stories do in a more minimalist fashion, in the book "Tehudot zehut" and also, actually, in the same journal in which the poem appears (I will henceforth refer to the book and the journal as "both collections"). Some of the pieces written by others are precise. Practically every single one is extremely cautious, reflecting the editors' choices. If there is a recurring element in many of the essays, it is the insult inscribed on the face of the Mizrahi father [that is, someone with origins in Middle Eastern and North African countries]. As Eliahu writes:

And I will never forget

The sadness of his hand as it gropes

For the Hebrew, to switch quickly

Before we leave and ascend

Above ground.

Such a poem - a distinctly political poem, which both admits to inability and seeks to pinpoint the place where defeat or shame occur - such a poem succeeds where other writers, some of them very learned, cannot or will not succeeds. Young scholar Yechezkel Rachamim explains in one article (in the book) why he refuses to carry the "brown man's burden," and he effectively sums it all up in a sentence that appears at the beginning of his essay: "The talk of 'Mizrahi-ness' is not really legitimate in Israeli society. This talk ... tends to generate areas of discomfort, resistance and detachment, and it has the ability to freeze, and to enflame, even good friends." But Rachamim assumes that, in cases such as his own, Israel allows the Mizrahi Jew to become part of cultural life, despite the problematic nature of the "Mizrahi situation." Thus he explains with great precision why he refuses "to bear the brown man's burden."

But what is that situation? How do you describe it, beyond the image of listening furtively, in secret, to Arab music, which is such a formative experience for so many Israelis, whose parents had trouble parting from what "Israeli society" (and, in fact, the ideological apparatus of the state) defined as forbidden? How can you describe the Mizrahi situation in the political sense? Naama Gershy, in an article that appears in both collections, writes of her Yemenite, Israeli-born father: "My mother's parents accepted him into the family, but it was a conditional acceptance. He had to prove his eligibility over and over." Gershy is too smart not to understand that this could be the beginning of a genuine discussion about the Mizrahi situation in Israel and the requisites for becoming part of the culture, and she therefore repeats: "Even after 30 years of connection between my mother and father ... my grandfather and grandmother remained very suspicious of my father."

But here comes the narcissistic regression. Gershy ably identifies this need "to deal with identity," instead of "to write about it," but she does not go further than describing her own love, her own sensitivity, how painful her father's humiliation is to her, why she does not feel rage, how much she loves Grandpa and Grandma. If you will, the true Ashkenazi triumph is this whiny, youth-movement style.

If all that the essays in the book seek to say is no more than "Farewell, sad Mizrahi-ness, you are gone forever" - why sit and write about it at all? What difference is there between those graduates of the interdisciplinary program at Tel Aviv University, whose origins are "completely Ashkenazi," and those who are "half Mizrahi"? Is it only the pain and affront of the father? But if this is the case, there is no need for so many words and articles. Perhaps it is only necessary to open your eyes and ears, and set off in search of the places where these matters have not been closed.

You don't sit and compile a book or an issue of a journal for the sole purpose of celebrating the fact that "I made it." Perhaps that's why lyricism is the winner here. First of all, there are the beautiful stories of Sami Berdugo. Berdugo really does not want to talk about "it," but rather about homosexuality, and that's fine. This also may be the reason why his stories - the one about the encounter with the kibbutz, as well as the one about bringing his lover to his brother's house - are much more than anthropology.

'Our Moroccan'

Mati Shmuelof, the driving force of both the book and the journal under review, writes in a heartrending piece: "I am a rotten fruit, the son of two lonely people who lived together and wanted to be like everyone else. How can you go back to the past and investigate, when the present prohibits all investigating and probing? One thing glints at me: I can't remember my father and mother hugging and kissing ..."

Why can't you probe the past? That, in fact, is precisely what you can do. The witnesses are there. The "ridiculous" accents are there. The existing surnames, and those that have changed into neutral Hebrew, are standing and waiting for anyone who wishes to recount the past. And, most importantly, the Internet is full of brilliant writers pondering these very questions. But here, in these two collections, everything looks like a glance toward the trendy, postcolonial side of things, but also toward that place that Yechezkel Rachamim described so well: the center that does not like the discussion of "Mizrahi-ness." It has no patience for injustice over there. Just let them be right.

As usual for the "leftist" milieu in Tel Aviv, it all began right now, "with us." Before us came the university, Frantz Fanon, and maybe the [Mizrahi protest movement] Black Panthers, because they said so on television. Where is Mois Benarroch? Not clear. What about the activity of the late Dudi Machlev? Not clear. Where is Meir Buzaglo? Where is Meir Babaioff? Not clear. And after all, all of these authors traveled a long way and braved great distance in trying to define the Mizrah in Israel, as well as the latest element in this debate: "hybridity." Instead of this we've now got a young, new, usually talented team; sometimes it is "our Moroccan who made it" (Shimon Adaf, for example; I am still waiting to read something of his that is more than just assent and coyness). It all moves between the family on one side and the postcolonial Earth, on the other.

I return to Mati Shmuelof. In the introduction to this edition of the journal, he writes: "The reconceptualization of the hybrid desire, as an effect of a-categorical imagination, opens up the possibility of 'the ability to act' - that is, of encouraging practices of resistance, acceptance or the dialectical recreation of identity-categories. In other words, the hybrid existence is a tentative existence, a conditional existence. It dictates practices of concealment and disclosure."

Did you get that? It's not very complicated. It could have been put more simply. We have two cards up our sleeve. One is Mizrahi. The other is "universal." We pull out one or the other according to convenience. I know that Shmuelof is not that kind of card-player. He is too honest for that, but here he formulates the practice that "identity studies" at the university have made possible: "Be a feminist in class, and return to your bowed position before men in the academic process"; "Be Moroccan in your scholarship, but don't mention it on an everyday basis; it annoys us."

I opened with a quote from a poem by Eli Eliahu. Hakivun Mizrach is much more than a trend. It has a more tasteful choice of illustrations and broader themes than I have presented here (only the fonts expose yet another designer's efforts to perpetrate "graphics without readers"). This issue of the journal opens well, with a poem by Navit Barel. She writes, "For me there is a way back, but you, / I remember that you did not turn your head, even when they yelled out your name to you in many tongues." It says that Barel is the daughter of Tripolitan parents, from Ashkelon.

Anyone who thinks that this pain, which at the moment is limited to describing parents and their suffering, won't rise to the surface because books like that of the slapdash 972 series have dealt with it by using an air-sanitizer - anyone who believes that is kidding himself. Our country is becoming more and more like a druggies' hangout. You lie on your back, get high and whisper, "Everything is going to be okay."